By: Schondra Aytch
Food-tech company Memphis Meats, is challenging the conventional meat industry. The San Francisco start-up which makes American favorites grows their meat in a lab from animal cells. While the positive implications on environment and animal welfare has helped the business receive major funding, the company still faces challenges in changing the public perception of lab-engineered meat. As businesses like Memphis Meats open up across the globe, the question still remains; is test tube
meat good for us?
Test-tube meat, better known as cultured meat is essentially made from stem cells of animals. These cells have the ability to regenerate themselves into any type of cell. In a lab, they are developed in bioreactor tanks. With oxygen and nutrients, these cells form skeletal tissue which will soon become muscle. In under a month, the meat can be harvested. This process has been successful with chicken, beef and pork.
Uma Valeti, the CEO and co-founder of Memphis Meats has already strategized his introduction into the marketplace with cultured meat. In under five years, the entrepreneur plans to sell his products to restaurants and retailers specifically in Memphis, Tennessee; likely a tough market. Hoping to change the outlook of animals and the environment, the business has already released a line of products including sausages, burgers and meatballs.
The amount of meat consumption has doubled in the last half century, and continues to increase. With the world currently producing over 200 tons of meat today, conventional methods will not suffice the growing need, and is exponentially damaging to our earth. Over 70 percent of fresh water, a third of the world’s grains and over a quarter of land use is used for conventional meat production. The increased emissions of greenhouse gases and rivers polluted by the conventional meat industry is threatening. Apart from capitalizing on essential resources, much of the meat produced today is contaminated with manure, antibiotics and dangerous pathogens due to poor conditions of living spaces and feed for animals. This is beside the increasingly polarizing topic of killing animals to eat.
Many believe cultured meat would relieve all these issues. It takes over 23 calories to produce one calorie of meat conventionally; clean meat would require only three. Specifically Memphis Meats, has assured that it’s production would decrease greenhouse emissions by 90 percent, consume less nutrients and doesn’t need any additives. With only the need for stem cells, animals would be free from slaughter.
Still, businesses like Memphis Meats have an uphill battle to overcome. Dutch scientist Mark Post introduced the world to the “Frankenburger” in 2013. Mark Post is the Chief Scientific Officer of Mosa Meats, a startup in the Netherlands, his first lab-engineered burger received mixed reviews; which took four years and over $300,000 to make. The two taste-testers were Hanni Rützler, nutritional researcher, and food writer Josh Schonwald explained that the meat was too meaty. Fatty acids, which gives a certain texture and taste to beef cannot be produced on stem cells alone. Memphis Meats has also seen slant reactions with their chicken, described as “spongy.” Shockingly Beyond Meat, the California startup that sells fake meat made of plant protein has been seen as the most acceptable because of how close it comes to tasting like meat.
As competition heats up in the biotech industry, there is one flaw that will define if cultured meat is marketable; fetal bovine serum. This serum, extracted from the blood of unborn calves is used to generate growth in the animal cells that make the cultured meat. Apart from this fact damaging the foundation of animal welfare that many of these companies promote, fetal bovine serum is expensive. While Valeti is still looking for an alternative, Post has already discovered some plant and yeast based growth serums that look promising.
Despite compromising the idea of animal welfare, there is a larger hurdle to pass for these startups and that is public perception. According to CNN, over 80 percent of Americans are unwilling to eat meat grown in a lab. The skepticism from America likely lies in the effects lab-engineered meat could have on human health. Both Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats have not provided a list of health benefits in its marketing strategy. When you consider the fact that much of the hormones used in the process of making cultured meat generates growth; what impact will it have on our bodies?
Post has offered some positive health implications of cultured meat; His Frankenburgers received criticism for not having any fat, but that could be a healthy alternative for people with a fat free diet. And if consumers do want fat, instead of injecting saturated fat into the meat, which contributes to diabetes, it could be replaced with omega-3 fat, which lowers the risk of heart disease and inflammation. Post also suggested that there could be variations of the same meat; Cholesterol free meat or heme iron free meat that would supply people who have strict diets. Still much of cultured meat is muscle, lacking the nutrients that comes from blood vessels, tissues and fats.
While there are still many issues that need to be solved and questions that need answers, both Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats have made strides in biotechnology. Memphis Meats which reached their $17 million crowdfunding goal with help from Bill Gates a few months ago and now has a prospect for breaking into retail. Mosa Meats, which received hefty funding from Google Co-Founder, Sergey Brin, is working tirelessly to perfect their Frankenburger. As the world becomes more aware of our dwindling natural resources and environmental damage is apparent, responsibly sourced food is in high demand. So is cultured meat good for us? It is too early to tell, but we cannot deny its potential.